the open gate

I’m just back from a data gathering trip to Denmark, where I visited several allotment associations, in order to contribute to a comparative project on European Allotments carried out by Prof Mary Corcoran and Dr Mary Benson at NUI Maynooth.

While I have yet to start making sense of my notes, recorded interviews, and various photographs, a couple of things stood out to me, even as I walked around the garden sites. Firstly, while they do not own the land they garden, most Danish allotment holders have constructed quite sophisticated houses on their rented sites, and many now spend the night, the summer, or most of the year, actually living in their gardens. Thus, for some at least, the allotment becomes ‘home’ albeit in a somewhat temporary sense.

People have personalised their houses, gardens and gates, and they speak affectionately of their allotments in ways that demonstrate a deep, personal commitment. Many have had the same garden for decades. It is where one’s friends and family come to visit, and where one’s grandchildren come to stay for a week over the summer.

The allotment is, furthermore, a ‘home’ that offers a heightened sense of freedom compared to a conventional apartment or terraced house. Interviewees talk about feeling able to experiment – with everything from housework (they tend to do less of it) to home decoration, which they can approach in a more experimental and relaxed way. Despite that fact than many younger allotment gardeners leave their garden in the morning to go to work, when they return to it in the evening they claim to feel as though they are on a permanent holiday, which we can perhaps interpret as a sense of freedom from the restricting norms and values of everyday life. Thus, allotments in Denmark have evolved from a simple plot of land with which one may supplement one’s intake of fresh fruit and vegetables, to fulfilling the need for choosing a lifestyle and to experiment with different ways of living.

Living in the allotment means closer contact with one’s neighbours than in a conventional home, and I found a tension between the need for a private place for living, and the informal interaction that necessarily takes place when people find themselves spending so much time side by side in small, mostly outdoors spaces. While the social interaction is a major advantage for many, and probably functions as a way of combatting isolation of apartment living or retirement, others are seen to withdraw ‘behind their own four hedges’ as one interviewee put it. While this apparent contradiction seems to lead to minor conflicts (most often over the height of one’s hedge, or the participation or otherwise in communal events) in general allotment gardens seem to offer their users either privacy or community – or both – according to their individual needs.

One way in which allotment holders can try to manage a balance between the public and the private, is a norm which seems to have evolved in some associations, the (unwritten) rule of the open gate: An open gate means, ‘come on in, I’d love some company, I’ll offer a cup of coffee or a beer in return for a chat’. A close gate means ‘not today, thanks’.

I will continue to discuss this project here from time to time, so check back, and choose ‘allotments’ in the drop down menu on the top right.


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